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We tend to forget that actors are people just like us; they get up in the morning and do their job. It may be a very public job, and big stars are extremely well compensated for their work. But it's still work, and sometimes it's not much fun - in fact, sometimes you want to quit. To you and me, The Last Hurrah (1958) is a nostalgic, leisurely paced John Ford picture starring Spencer Tracy. But to Tracy, it served as a therapeutic experience after the rigors of his previous film, The Old Man and the Sea (1958), which went way over budget and generated an on-going argument between Tracy and Old Man novelist, Ernest Hemingway. After that ordeal, Tracy felt he hadhad enough, and seriously considered making The Last Hurrah the final film of his illustrious career.
In The Last Hurrah, Tracy plays Frank Skeffington, the long-time mayor of a city that's an obvious stand-in for Boston. (The city's actual mayor, James M. Curley, later sued the producers for "invasion of privacy," because he felt the Skeffington character too closely resembled him. He didn't win the case.) Skeffington is a widower, and has a no-good son (Arthur Walsh) who does little except play jazz and try to pick up girls. Skeffington's nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), writes for a local newspaper, and winds up covering what will become Skeffington's final bid for office, one that doesn't proceed smoothly. The film is overly sentimental at times, but Ford brings a visual elegance to this vanished world of Irish-American politicking. And Tracy is as wonderful as you expect him to be in the role.
"I've joked about retiring but this could be the picture," Tracy said while filming The Last Hurrah. "I'm superstitious you know that's a part of being Irish and I'm back with John Ford again, for the first time since I started out with him twenty-eight years ago [in Up the River in 1930]. I feel this is the proper place for me to end. Even the title is prophetic."
The shoot for The Last Hurrah was as calm as The Old Man and the Sea was tense. Tracy found himself surrounded by old friends and fellow actors from Ford's unofficial repertory such as Donald Crisp, John Carradine, Wallace Ford, Jane Darwell, James Gleason, Ricardo Cortez, Basil Rathbone, Edmund Lowe and Pat O'Brien, who hadn't worked with Ford since the 1932 film, Airmail. In Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman, O'Brien recalled that on the set of The Last Hurrah, Ford "would never talk the part you were playing, he'd just tell you what he wanted. 'I hope you can get it,' he'd say, chewing on that handkerchief he always had. When you failed, he'd say, 'That wasn't what I wanted. Try to get what I wanted. We're going to take another whack at it and it better be good.' And after you finally got it he'd come over and put his arms around you. 'Why the hell didn't you get it in the first place?' he'd say. Ford was the genius of them all. He was an artist drawing a portrait in oil."
The only potentially disruptive incident that occurred during the filming was when someone showed up with a case of whiskey in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Ford, who was a heavy drinker like most of the Irish cast and crew members, exploded in anger, "Jesus Christ, what do you want to do, shut down the picture?" and the booze was carted off.
By 1958, Tracy had already won two Academy Awards for Best Actor, and many people in the film industry wanted him to get another one before he hung it up. Given its literary pedigree, insiders felt that he stood a good chance to win with The Old Man and the Sea. Tracy, on the other hand, believed that he delivered far superior work in The Last Hurrah. He would have been happy to simply forget about The Old Man and the Sea and move on. The same went for Hemingway, who called Tracy's performance in the film, the work of, "a rich, fat actor". (Time magazine seemed to agree with a review that stated, "in The Old Man and the Sea[Tracy] sulked at the director and hardly bothered to act at all".)
Tracy WAS nominated for an Oscar®, all right. But it was for The Old Man and the Sea. He was watching from the comfort of his living room when David Niven walked away with that year's award for Best Actor, for his memorable work in Separate Tables (1958). Tracy was especially pleased that he didn't have to climb on-stage, as many of his peers were forced to do, and help Jerry Lewis fill an extra 20 minutes of TV time when the ceremony wrapped earlier than expected! Apparently, in those days, winners knew how to keep their speeches short. Tracy, by the way, postponed his retirement and would appear in six more pictures before death ended his glorious career in 1967.
As for John Ford, The Last Hurrah was not one of his more successful films, despite being honored as Best Director of the year by the National Board of Review. The director, like Frank Skeffington in his film, no longer seemed interested in keeping up with the modern world. Now in his middle sixties, his desire and creative drive for picture making was on the decline: "I don't want to make great sprawling pictures," he stated. "I want to make films in a kitchen...The old enthusiasm has gone, maybe. But don't quote that - oh, hell, you can quote it."
Producer: John Ford
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O'Connor
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editing: Jack Murray
Art Design: Robert Peterson
Set Designer: William Kiernan
Gowns: Jean Louis
Sound: John Livadary, Harry Mills
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O'Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass, Sr.), Donald Crisp (The Cardinal), James Gleason (Duke Gillen),Edward Brophy (Ditto Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg).
by Paul Tatara